First Man – A Movie Review

My wife and I really wanted to see First Man in the theater, but we just never got around to it.  However, I made sure to rent it from the Normal Public Library as soon as it became available.

If you’re unfamiliar with the movie, it stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and follows his path to becoming the first man to step on the moon.  It also stars Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong, Neil’s wife.  You know Foy from The Crown–she played Queen Elizabeth.  The film is directed by Damien Chazelle, who also directed La La Land and Whiplash.  As you can see, First Man is a can’t-miss between these three talents.

Let me begin by saying that I loved this movie.  Admittedly, though, it did not follow the trajectory that I expected.  First Man zeroes in on Neil Armstrong the person, not the engineer, not the pilot, and not the astronaut.

I must confess–I knew nothing about Neil Armstrong other than his monumental feat.  Gosling played him as a quiet, repressed, introvert.  After a little research, it seems that this interpretation was not terribly off-base.

Furthermore, I did not realize that Armstrong lost a child when she was only two years old.  Though this loss occurs very early in the film, it becomes a subtle, though potent, plot point and driving motivator.

The creators of this film depict some beautiful cinematography, but they made some really interesting choices in what to show us.  They opted against shots depicting the magnificent glory of space travel.  Instead, they often give us the story from Neil’s perspective.  His view is often limited, obstructed, and cramped.  The machinery creeks, rattles, and doesn’t always respond as intended.  Even the NASA bathrooms were displayed realistically, which means … not exactly pristine.  First Man exposes the down and dirty aspects to making the impossible possible.

Don’t get me wrong, First Man absolutely inspires the human spirit to try to achieve more, but it also makes it very clear that these men were risking their lives each and every time they climbed into anything associated with space exploration.  Furthermore, the film made sure to honor those men who did indeed lose their lives to America’s cause.  Though it’s hard to watch, it does not shy away from death.

Claire Foy delivers an understated performance pertaining to the NASA wife’s existence.  Her Janet Armstrong must navigate the complexities of being a supportive wife, a lonely mother, and a grieving friend, but also that of an intelligent human being who will hold her husband accountable when he’s neglecting both she and his family.  She and Gosling’s chemistry is interesting, to say the least.  They exhibit a troubled marriage that it not yet completely revealed.

In fact, subtle is how I would describe this film as a whole.  It is quiet, understated, and moody.  Just know that, when they reach the moon, it is breathtaking.  The lunar landscape appears as it typically does–they did not break with reality.  But the tight shots of the astronauts, the equipment, and even the granular surface–it’s mesmerizing.  And, though you won’t expect it, a moment arrives that damn near brought me to tears.  I won’t spoil it for you, but it gave me great insight into the film’s perception of Neil Armstrong and his motivation.

Consequently, First Man has a beautiful–beautiful!–score composed by Justin Hurwitz.  It’s currently free to download if you are an Amazon Prime member.  Find it by clicking HERE.

Because of its somber tone, I’m not surprised First Man has not made more of an impact.  Though people would probably expect it to be, it’s not really a feel-good movie for the masses.  Nevertheless, it is a wonderfully constructed film.  If you love NASA, space travel, or any of the creative talents involved in making this movie, you will not be disappointed.  Though it’s unusual, it definitely won me over.

On a side note, the movie briefly notified the viewing audience that it was based on a book by James R. Hansen.  Because the movie portrayed Neil Armstrong in such an interesting manner, and because I literally know nothing about the American legend, I stopped by the library and picked it up.  It’s titled First Man: The Life Of Neil A. Armstrong.  You can take a look at it HERE.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

 

 

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La La Land – A Movie Review

You’ve probably seen La La Land by now, but just in case you haven’t, I’m here to tell you it’s a fun movie.  It’s a great date movie.  Also, there’s no denying the sheer charisma of both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.  It’s impossible not to like them individually.  Together, they are a force.

But does it live up to the hype?  After all, according to IMDB, it’s won 153 awards out of 218 nominations, and that’s just so far.  We’ve still got the Academy Awards coming up.

Well, to be honest, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

Allow me to explain before you “x” out of here with extreme prejudice.   Like I said, it’s a really enjoyable movie.  My wife and I had a great time seeing it together.  It’s rare there is a movie playing that we are equally enthusiastic to view.  Both of us, though, didn’t quite understand the rave reviews.

La La Land is a modern day throwback to a bygone era.  It wears its heart on its sleeve in that regard.  Jazz is an extended metaphor for the movie itself, and just as Gosling’s character must realize that Jazz needs to be reinvented in order to survive, this movie seems to be trying to do the same with the musical comedy.  But, here’s the thing, very little in this movie is a surprise.  You’ve seen it all before, especially in the old classics that it yearns to emulate.  For a movie that tries to bring to light the importance of originality, it’s awfully traditional.

Here’s what really troubles me – this is a love letter to Hollywood.  If La La Land wins Best Picture, I’ll argue it’s for the exact same reason Birdman won … Hollywood loves itself.  There are so many references to old Hollywood in this film—visually, in the dialogue, even in the story beats.  I imagine it will win Best Picture, but in the same way the coach’s kid wins MVP at the end of the season.  Hollywood always votes for Hollywood.

Yikes.  It sounds like I didn’t like the movie, but I really did find it very engaging.

Yet I can’t lie.  I love Emma Stone, but her character came off as fairly cliché.  We have the “damsel in distress” moment when she only decides to forge ahead after the gallant knight sacrifices himself.  Her character remained inconsistent through the whole film.  One minute she is a rock of fortitude, the next she’s throwing in the towel.  So much of her storyline is totally dependent on Gosling’s.

Gosling got a little meatier role than Stone (shocker), but even his character struck me as more “cool” than “complex.”  I liked him, but some of his choices made no sense to me, especially near the end of the film.  I won’t spoil it, but there was definitely a point where I asked myself, “Um … why not?  Go ahead and go!”  Everything he does is for Mia, until it isn’t.  Or is it?  Wait, what?

The camera work proved really amusing, and there were moments I caught myself laughing at nothing particularly funny, just in delight at the interesting angles and viewpoints.  I also loved the singing, though neither Stone nor Gosling are fantastic singers (as they are the first to admit).  The dancing certainly stole the show.  I loved the little moments Stone and Gosling danced together.  Here’s the problem, for a musical, there wasn’t a ton of singing, and there wasn’t enough dancing.  I really could have gone for a lot more singing and dancing!  (I can’t believe I just typed that.)  The last third of the film got quite a bit more into the drama of their relationship and the singing, dancing, and fresh camerawork faded into the background. And, as I said, that whole relationship story of theirs has been done many, many times.  The last third of the film lost a lot of steam.

La La Land is overrated.

And before you tell me to back off, it’s just a musical, let me remind you that this movie is nominated for Best Picture against films like Fences, Hidden Figures, Lion, Moonlight, Hacksaw Ridge, Manchester By the Sea, Arrival, and Hell Or High Water.  You can’t play the “just a musical” card in that kind of company with that kind of competition.  Against pictures like those, La La Land seems to be a reproduction of past glory, a retread done with all the new effects.  It’s good, yes, very good, but is it great?  Is it the best?

All right, I’ll be blunt.  I mean, if you’re still around by this point, you must be willing to humor me.  Like with Birdman, I can’t decide if La La Land is a copy, a love letter, a fresh take on an old style, a tongue in cheek piece of metafiction, or just the creators trying to be clever.  I don’t know, and that’s what bothers me.  When I say this movie has been done before, the creators can say, “Well, it’s meant to be nostalgic, a love letter if you will to old Hollywood.”  I don’t like that, because they’ve always got a cop out at the ready.  It’s like they were hedging their bets a bit with La La Land.  They’re not dumb—they knew what they had with the chemistry between Stone and Gosling.  They knew those two guaranteed a hit.  If the critics hated it, they could say, “We’re simply paying homage to those films that inspired us!”

That sort of ambiguity irritates me.

Furthermore, that ending.  This is slightly “spoiler” territory, so you may want to stop now …

I’ll give you time to walk away …

Still here?

Of course you are.  My wife and I are the last two people to see this thing …

Without giving it all away, there is a brief montage of “what could have been,” and through the whole thing I thought to myself, “Wow, I much rather would have seen this as the ending.”  Maybe some feel that’s the whole point, but I think that the movie had a real chance to break out on its own if it had gone down the imagined path.  So much about the actual ending makes no sense to me at all in terms of characterization.  So much of the ending has already been done many, many times.  That alternate ending would have been a fresh resolution to a clichéd tale.

Astonishingly, I do recommend La La Land.  For the most part it charmed and regaled me.  I’d actually recommend it even more if it wasn’t receiving all of these awards.  I think I’d be less critical of it if that proved the case.  As it stands, though, I just can’t get past this movie being about how wonderful and heartbreaking show business can be and Hollywood lapping it up and saying it’s the best thing this year.  It all seems far too self-serving.

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Lars and the Real Girl – A Movie Review

I’m proud to admit that the main reason I wanted to see Lars and the Real Girl is because I’m a Ryan Gosling fan.  I loved his work in The Notebook, Stay, and Fracture, so I figured as strange as Lars and the Real Girl sounded, I’d give it a shot.

If you ask anyone, they’ll tell you Lars and the Real Girl is about a guy who falls in love with a sex doll.  On the absolute most superficial surface, yes, that’s what this movie is about.

(SPOILERS)

However, what it’s really about is a repressed young man who absolutely has no idea how to interact with the world.  His mother died giving birth to him, and his older brother left him with their equally antisocial father.  So after the father dies, years later, the older brother and his wife return to share the father’s house with Lars.  Lars, being a genuinely good man, lets them have the whole house and moves into the garage.

Lars forever wears a baby blanket his mother made him around his neck as a scarf.  When he discovers his sister-in-law is pregnant, his awkward behavior intensifies.  You realize that he is suffering from a crippling fear that she will die giving birth as well, but he has no idea how to verbalize or even address these fears.

Enter Bianca.  Bianca is a sex doll Lars orders online.  The minute she arrives, Lars begins acting more normal and even happy.  When he brings Bianca over for dinner, his brother, Gus, and sister-in-law, Karin, are at a loss, but they don’t attack him over it.  Instead they watch as Lars interacts with Bianca as though she’s truly speaking to him, and he then asks if she can stay in the house because she’s very religious and doesn’t want to give the wrong image.  This is very important because it allows the audience to realize that sex with the doll is the last thing on Lars’ mind.  He needed a companion and something to help him get through his anxieties, and Bianca was the answer.

Karin suggests they take Bianca, who, according to Lars, was just in from Brazil, to the doctor to make sure she hasn’t suffered any illness as a result of her travels.  This, of course, is really a subtle way of getting Lars to the doctor.  The doctor pretends Bianca is real, and she later explains to Karin and Gus that Lars is experiencing a delusion, but he’s not schizophrenic.  Her suggestion is to treat Bianca like a real person and see what happens.

Before long, the entire town gets in on the act.  Bianca becomes a thriving member of their community, even getting elected to the school board.  It’s not that the town believes she’s real; it’s that they all love Lars so much that they’re willing to do anything to help him through this possibly life-long phase.

Before long, Lars undergoes several growing experiences that I believe ultimately leads to his relinquishing Bianca, though in a slow, heartbreaking, and natural process … relatively speaking.

(END SPOILERS)

I adore this movie.  My wife and I both were all-but crying at its conclusion because Gosling completely immerses himself in Lars’ quirks and Lars’ emotions.  Plus, the message is so absolutely touching.  I felt ashamed because throughout the movie I kept expecting some jerk to get on Lars’ case, but it never happened.  Lars and Bianca were accepted at Church, at office parties, at the bowling alley, at the hospital-everywhere.  And I felt shame because I forgot that when dealing with people face to face, when dealing with people you know, they will usually do right by you.  People are good.  People do care.  And it took this movie to help me realize I shouldn’t always assume the worst, most people in this world really are kind and generous.

Seriously, I implore you to watch this movie if you haven’t done so.  It’s labeled a comedy, but you’ll be amazed at the emotional depth of it.  It is so much more than just a movie about a guy who falls in love with a sex doll.

Fracture – A Movie Review

There’s so much I want to say about this film that I simply can’t for fear of spoiling some pretty captivating moments and revelations.I will say this: Watching Anthony Hopkins as the manipulative, arrogant, charming aeronautical engineer and Ryan Gosling as the manipulative, arrogant, charming lawyer was riveting.  Both men ooze charisma in this film, and the scenes in which they interact are magnetic.

I don’t remember hearing much about this movie when it was out in the theaters, and that’s a real shame.  Even I must admit I’m normally not one for “court room” flicks, but I finally got around to it anyway because I’m an Anthony Hopkins fan.  And by the way, Gosling, who more than holds his own with the veteran, impresses me more and more with each role I see him play. 

Let me assure you, this thriller was a winner all because of the superb acting.  I really recommend you give it a view and see two of Hollywood’s best at work.